In 2006, Sting came out with Songs from the Labyrinth, an album devoted to the Elizabethan composer John Dowland. It was an unlikely choice of musical material for a rock star, yet Sting approached Dowland with enthusiasm and respect, refraining from rendering his songs into pop or setting them to a rock beat (as Richard Thompson for example has done with Renaissance tunes and Italian madrigals). He employed a professional lutenist, Edin Karamazov, and accompanied some of the pieces on the lute himself, one of his recent passions. Showing restraint and taste, Sting did not attempt to sing the songs in the stylized “classical” manner but used his voice’s natural register to adopt at times a relaxed and conversational, at times a more hushed or emphatic tone to suit each song’s occasion.
The result was oddly compelling and delightful. In the decade since the recording was released, the album’s Amazon page has accumulated over 200 largely favorable customer reviews. The handful of negative reviews are not, as one might suspect, from Sting fans baffled by his newfound classical preoccupation but rather finicky classical purists taking issue with his vocal incompetence, his nerve in attempting something out of his league. Yet they miss the point. The rocker’s homespun approach reveals the music’s texture in a fresh way, and moreover reflects the actual conditions in which Dowland’s music was performed, namely by musician friends in a relaxed and intimate setting.
Dowland appeals to us in that he shares certain affinities with the modern notion of the artist—the artist as alienated, rebellious iconoclast, misunderstood by his society, striking out on his own in proud defiance of convention. The English long for a Caravaggio, Beethoven or Van Gogh to call their own (they do have one in fact: Shakespeare, but he’s not neurotic enough). Dowland can, partially at any rate, be said to fit the bill. He is indeed an enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure, in the Greek sense, his fate largely self-inflicted. Before we investigate the reasons for this, and what it all has to do with the point of this essay, we need to slip back a few decades in time to the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the extraordinary story of her chief court musician, Alfonso Ferrabosco.